Systematic reviews of online learning and its effectiveness during and after COVID-19: Counteracting social isolation among post secondary students

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About the project

This project employs the methodology of systematic review combining all its components, both quantitative (meta-analysis, MA) and qualitative (meta-synthesis), second-order MA and meta-synthesis (i.e., reviews of reviews) to derive a comprehensive picture of the outcomes of distance education, primarily online learning (OL) beyond those typically considered academic achievement and attitude. The issue has become critical since the COVID-19 pandemic forced numerous higher education institutions to increase their use of OL instructional practices.

The reviews address the following research questions:

  • Does OL (COVID-driven) contribute to the phenomenon of social isolation?
  • If so, what categories of learners: by age, gender, discipline, geographic location, socio-economic status, etc. are the most affected?
  • Does the promotion of social presence in OL counteract social isolation and increase learning satisfaction, engagement and well-being?
  • How much does the pre-pandemic research literature align with the reality of OL during the pandemic?
  • What preventive/mitigating interventions (aka "best practices") are recommended to ensure that various educational and social benefits are achieved?

The project encompassed the following types of systematic reviews:

  • At stage one we conducted a second-order MA to summarize what is known on the issue of learning and societal outcomes of OL;
  • Stage two produced a first-order MA on research conducted during the pandemic;
  • Stage three combined findings of the first two stages with a truncated analysis of the most prominent qualitative data in search of "best practices" for counteracting the negative societal and psychological effects of social isolation in postsecondary OL.

Key findings

Systematic searches in multiple databases identified slightly over 450 potentially informative research documents. This number, after removal of duplicates and through the thorough screening of abstracts, was reduced to the 56 most relevant sources for full-text review (double-coder independent) in stage one and 46 in stage two.

Stage 1:

In stage 1 our second order MA largely confirmed that pure OL is comparable to, but not significantly better than in-class instruction in terms of academic achievement. The summarized data from 10 MAs on OL, published between 2000 and 2021, produced the overall weighted average effect size of g++ = 0.085. As discussed below, blended learning (BL) is significantly superior.

Data regarding other outcome types were sparse, extremely heterogeneous and of a different nature than MAs and narrative reviews. These topics were found:

  1. attrition in OL courses (Laurier et al., 2020);
  2. group skills and behaviours (Zhang & Cui, 2018); etc.

Subsequently, no second-order MA could be produced, as the outcomes across the reviewed sources are incompatible. Instead, we briefly summarized the major messages derived from various relevant sources as follows:

  • Social presence is important for successful OL. Specifically, it is strongly and positively associated with learning satisfaction and with perceived learning (Richardson et al., 2017) and students’ course retention (Lowe-Madkins, 2017). Social presence, based on effective (meaningful emotional) communications, enhances group cohesion and sense of community in OL (Mykota, 2018).
  • Communities of inquiry (teaching, social and cognitive) were positively correlated with both actual and perceived learning and with satisfaction (Martin, 2022). Teaching presence, specifically, is a strong predictor of students’ satisfaction and learning outcomes in fully OL courses (Caskurlu et al., 2022).
  • Satisfaction derived from social linkages with peers in collaborative and interactive distance education contributes to creating more authentic learning environments and helps to achieve deep learning (Papi et al., 2019).

Stage 2:

Studies conducted during the pandemic indicate that the forced reliance on OL forms of instruction in post secondary education may have exacerbated the potential problem of social isolation and associated negative consequences, but also present is evidence on how to address these challenges.

Stage 3:

We hope to catalogue the instructional practices in OL characterized by the elevated potential of increasing interactions and counteracting negative societal and psychological outcomes of OL in postsecondary education.

Policy implications

Based on the findings of this systematic review, the following practical recommendations can be offered:

  1. With respect to achievement outcomes, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that BL is superior to OL. According to recently released second-order MA, its average weighted effect size is g++ = 0.385, k = 12 (Borokhovski et al., 2022). BL should be considered as a better alternative to either OL alone or in-class instruction alone, as social presence is a core component of instructional interaction.
  2. Designed interactions and collaboration must be incorporated into OL and BL to have a strong potential for positively impacting learning and satisfaction, thus reducing social isolation and by-products such as drop-out, a long-known issue with distance education.
  3. Various means to enable and promote interactions in OL include: webinars, video-assets, online discussion boards, discussion forums, Wikis and blogs, 3D virtual environments and gaming, group projects, on-campus orientation sessions, one-on-one synchronous sessions with instructors and peers, etc. (Colak, 2018; Farrel et al., 2018).

Further information

Read the full report

Contact the researchers

Robert M. Bernard, PhD, (principal investigator), distinguished professor emeritus, Concordia University:

Richard F. Schmid, PhD (co-principal investigator), professor of education, Concordia University:

Ghayda Hassan PhD (co-principal investigator), professor of psychology, Université du Quebec á Montréal:

Eugene Borokhovski, PhD (consultant), affiliate associate professor, Concordia University:

David Pickup, MA, information specialist, Concordia University:

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